Saturday, August 4, 2012

Food Writing 101

I have been doing a lot of reading about writing as of late. I have read some pretty handy things from some very learned people with multiple degrees in writing, communication and literature. Look, I’ll be the first person to admit I don’t know shit about writing…hell, I barely know anything about shinola. I went into this quest for knowledge to improve my writing, and in fairness I have learned a few things. However I came out fully confident that there are a lot of people in the writing word that should have saved the money from all their advanced degrees, and bought themselves a lifetimes supply of snow cones and a mood ring for all the good it did them.

The following are six main talking points I keep seeing over and over again from writing experts that I don’t happen to agree with. I’ll do my best to guide you through them so they don’t become overwhelming. I’ll tell you what the experts say then I’ll break that down and give you one line that you may actually find useful. When we’re done with all of it and you think you’re ready to write. Go ahead and print off a copy of these helpful tips. Crinkle them up really tight a few times until the paper becomes somewhat soft and then unwrinkled it as best you can. Once you’ve done that you’re ready to wipe your ass with it. I’m pretty sure that’s what Ernest Hemingway would have done…

1)      What the experts say: Writers are generally introverts and you probably are as well, and you should use this to your advantage.

What I say: I love, no wait, LOVE… speaking in public and I’ve been doing it since I was I believe ten.  I had to give a five minute memorized speech in front of a crowd of about five-hundred people involved in scouting. This is something I’ve always enjoyed doing because you get instant feedback as to whether the subject you are talking about is flying, or collecting crickets. There are audible as well as visual clues as to how you are being received. When things are good, my “id” and I are giving each other high fives! When people are not getting what you’re trying to get across…it is time to dig deeper. So yeah…not an introvert…Sorry.

The Breakdown: Ted Kaczynski was an excellent writer, a genius and an introvert which he used very much to his advantage…But it was never much fun to open his letters.

2)      What the experts say: Writing can be therapeutic, but it shouldn’t be therapy.

What I say: I really began writing about food on December 30th of last year 2011 my late father’s birthday. To be honest that’s the first day I really began writing about anything. I had always hated writing and in high school putting pen to paper was always a struggle. With my father and a couple glasses of Jameson both gone, I was watching an old episode of the French Chef thinking about the influence food had in my life. Food was one of those passions my father and I had shared and it became a means of communication for when there were rough patches. It was something we could always talk about.

So on a whim I said “what the hell” The cat for once wasn’t using the computer, and I had a couple hours to kill. At that point I had a Blogger account for a couple years and had never written anything. I wrote a story in about an hour and edited it by re-reading it once and then posted it. I sent it to a room of friends and on my home page in Facebook because as there was nobody to talk to here at home, and The Cat isn’t much of a listener besides.

For once in my life I had something to say that wasn’t verbal, it was mental.  The best part was putting the words down in a manner that made the most sense until it was exactly what I wanted to say. Being able to twist every last drop of meaning out of those words until it was, for me…perfect. That is something you don’t get from talking or speaking to a group of people unless it is a prepared written speech…a second chance.

The breakdown: Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. ~ Graham Greene

3)      What the experts say: Respect your boundaries and when you go beyond them use that as a “learning experience.”

What I say: The only boundaries there are in writing are the edges of the paper. The people who tell you “you should do this” or “never do that” are usually self-important pompous asses with either too many degrees or were good enough to have been published at least once. My guess is that these “absolutes” are being perpetuated by professors who’s only published works are those their students are forced to buy at the beginning of each semester.

My grammar may not be the best and my punctuation may give English majors nervous breakdowns, but don’t ever say there are limits. People may never read what you write either but that’s beside the point. You need only sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, or a computer and a keyboard if you’ve got one handy…and start writing. That’s the beauty of this technology driven world, you can have nothing but unreadable crap that a four year old could string together or otherwise utter drivel …and still find an audience willing to read the crap that’s flowing onto your paper or screen.  I’m pretty sure that’s how E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” got published.  

The Breakdown: “…I like to think of anything stupid I've done as a "learning experience." It makes me feel less stupid.” ~ P.J. O’Rourke

4)      What the experts say: Hone your art like a chef hones their knife.

What I say: I don’t consider writing art… unless you’re a poet. Just like professional cooks are not artists. Yes I believe there is a certain art like component to both as you are in fact “creating” something. This is the result I believe, of learning/using certain skill sets that you’ve refined to your own esthetic and used time and time again to achieve specific results. This is why I believe writing/cooking are “crafts” as these are things a crafts-person does. Craftspeople build the foundations and the walls and the roofs…artists hang color and canvas on the structure.

The breakdown: Ars longa, vita brevis, which means “Art is long, Life is short.” This was said by a group of people who aren’t around anymore. So you can either spend a lot of time futzing with what you’ve written, or you can say what you want and go have a beer before you’re too dead to drink it!

5)      What the experts say: Find your audience.

What I say: I find writing to be more of a cathartic experiencing and I do it for myself. I don’t have expectations as to what others may think of something I write as long as I’m happy with it. I doubt very much J.D. Salinger pained himself over his own writing except the end result had to be pleasing to him and him alone. I met the man on several occasions and trust me when I tell you he was a curmudgeon of the highest order and an S.O.B. besides. To say he was not concerned with finding anybody whatsoever, would be an understatement of epic proportions.

P.J. O’Rourke is in my estimation a very good writer and he writes to his “style” which is to say, not much style at all. Writing about things he finds interesting with little to no regard of his readership which I’m sure is why he wrote a book report of sorts on “The Wealth of Nations.” Sure he writes mostly political satire and humor regarding his travels over the years as a journalist but that’s his aesthetic. He writes about his experiences and if you like that then fine. If you don’t maybe you need to pick up a Tom Brown novel and get the hell out of the humor section.

The Breakdown: Write what you want to write about, if people went around wondering what people wanted to hear all the time The Beatles would have come up with MMMBop First!

6)      What the experts say: Ask yourself… what do your readers want?

What I say: The notion that a writer has to in fact “pander/adjust” to others who read their work is absurd in my estimation.  Yes I guess some folks need to be told “Hey you use the word Yummo one more time and someone is either gonna slap you, or give you a TV show” or other self-edit skills… but really….they should just be true to themselves. Do you think that Jim Morrison of The Doors went around asking his audience what they wanted to hear?! Granted you could barely understand him with his drunken slurring and was so damned high besides, he probably wouldn’t remember what you said had you answered anyway.

The other “art like” thing writing has are critics. Like art critics, writing critics are there for the simple fact that they were too big to be a true parasite and live off other beings in a true parasite like manner. So they decided to take something so subjective and so personal as writing and make a living telling “sheep” if someone’s writing is good or not. Trust me when I tell you these people know as much about writing as I know about scrimshaw,  and I’m not sure they even know that much.

The Breakdown: The only time I like to hearGive The People What They Wantis when it’s sung by the Kinks.

I probably have forty or fifty more platitudes and hollow empty phrases that I’ve seen again and again over the past couple of weeks but it all comes down to this. What are you trying to achieve with your writing? If you’re looking to write about what you’re cooking and hoping a few family and friends see it then great. Write whatever your heart desires.

If you’re looking to get a little more appeal… maybe clean up your punctuation a bit and look around at other people you like and what they are doing then take a few cues from length and style but for the love of the Jamaican Bobsled Team, make it your own.

If you want to get your own TV show or be published, then go ahead and take 20 more writing classes and be like 90 percent of the food writers out there. Be a heartless soulless also-ran with nary a creative/original bone in your body. Listen to those experts I mean why not, everybody’s doing it. But I guarantee in the process you’ll lose yourself, you’ll lose what makes your writing enjoyable, you’ll become…the lowest common denominator, you’ll become…Hanson.

P.S. I’ll end on an ellipse…Because I’m not supposed to…


  1. Well said Michael. You made some great points to really think about.

    1. I appreciate that Linda...the key is to be yourself and write about what makes you happy. But what the hell do I know.

  2. I think this one hurt my feelings a little bit. Sniff.

    1. Gosh I hope not Shelby! I don't remember anyplace in the story where I insulted talented writers. Thanks for reading.